Autumn retreat over?

It’s been four months since my ‘fresh start’. I’ve chosen this quiet moment to sit down, reflect and record a few snippets.

reflect

New country: Egypt

What a country! When I first heard the news that we might be moving to Cairo, my rational self was instinctively on guard but my other self was calmly whispering a welcoming tune. Despite the chaotic image it has and the nuisance you are bound to encounter on many levels on a daily basis in this ancient city, my inner voice keeps telling me that this is a place that ‘will be alright’. ‘il7amdulillah’, as I was reflecting on my Egyptian life in a lift with the titanic theme tune, I couldn’t help but thought that I actually rather fancied Egypt. A place with character and real life.

New job

I started work the day after I landed. It was rather intense to start with but as I just kept my head down and got on with it, it’s been working out fine. It’s the first place I’ve taught where I turned out to be ‘relatively experienced’ and ‘highly qualified’. What a change to be in a place where there is so much opportunity for training and seeing training in action. That energy, curiosity and intense desire to learn and experiment emanated from the new gang around me is so inspiring. It reminds me that even though my own development has still a long way to go, I’m not quite at the same stage as some of my fresher colleagues because I can no longer call myself a novice. It tells me not to become complacent and urges me to keep observing, reflecting and taking action to improve myself. This, I thought, requires some writing. So here I am.

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New perspective

I did not have high hopes on the living standards here. Experience has taught me that expectations are major obstacles to one’s inner happiness.

expectation quote

Zero expectation: This is pretty much the attitude I’ve been taking since the day I arrived – be it at work, sitting in traffic, pondering why certain things and people’s behaviour are the way they are. Thanks to this perspective, I’ve probably saved me from countless nervous breakdowns I could have had if I had stayed my old self. It’s true that I still have my bad days when I would throw this out of the window but on the whole I could say that I have been doing well to let that little cloud of thought gently and quietly float away without being shaded or weighed down.

cloud surf

Forget ‘cloud-surfing’! Life is much lighter when you are just cloud-watching.

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Fresh start

It seems that for the past seven months, I have been letting life overwhelm me. I have forgotten how the simple act of reminding myself to stop, breathe and be can calm a wandering mind. It is time to resume my practice of recording three happy things – to revive that dose of daily spice which freshens up life.

freshstart

New mindset

Stepping outside tonight, instead of the usual humid stale air that has filled the air in the past month, there was this gentle breeze. I see it as a signal of a change of climate which mirrors my new and brighter outlook. Time to enjoy writing, to indulge and to stop being a couch potato serial killing dramas!

New language 

I have started to learn Egyptian Arabic. What a challenge it is to learn a language! It demands so much creative and connective brain power – exactly what I need (but dread) to keep my brain from wilting.

New blog

As a way of motivating myself, I also began a new blog in order to document my Arabic progress (or the lack of it!). If I am lucky, it should also give me a greater insight when it comes to me answering my students’ questions on their own struggle in language learning. Killing two birds in one stone – why not indeed!

 

 

Tofu and broken needles

I’m on a split shift for three nights in a row which means I’m working for 6 hours during the day, then a ‘break’ of three or four hours prepping lessons, followed by another evening class for about two hours. Things went downhill pretty quickly when I became too tired to go out and pick up some proper dinner but realised about half an hour before the lesson that I probably wouldn’t have lasted till the end if I hadn’t eaten anything and so made the decision that it was best to eat something. This then led to a trip to MacDonald or Mos Burgers. Embarrassing! Certainly a bad week in terms of quality food. Last night I was walking into the classroom thinking, ‘Am I going to make it through?’ Then one of the students walked in wearing a kimono.

Harikuyo (針供養)

It turned out that it was about broken needles. A flurry of questioning and explaining followed. My student began to describe the Japanese tradition of ‘harikuyo’ – literally a memorial service for broken needles. Apparently, needle workers (Ohariko, お針子) like tailors or shoemakers whose livelihoods depend on needles would gather at Senso-Ji (浅草寺) in Asakusa on February 8th every year to put their hardworking needles to rest.

How? That’s the interesting bit. You would put your broken needles into a massive dish of tofu. Having worked ‘hard’ all their lives, the Japanese thought that it would only be decent to provide them with a ‘soft’ resting place. Forever being practical, the other student and I couldn’t help but to wonder how the tofu would cope.

‘What if there were too many needles and it wouldn’t fit?’

‘Wouldn’t the tofu just disintegrate and spread everywhere creating a sea of needles?”

Later the needles will be collected into a needle mound (Harizuka, 針塚). As to what would happen after that, none of us was quite sure.

Cultural ambassador

That reminds me of a conversation I had with a different group of students on the role of English.

‘What do we want to learn when we study English, apart from learning how to use it as a means of communication for businesses and other transactional purposes?’

Here is the reply I got.

‘The cultural connotations on the way in which the language is used, the background, the people, the history…’

This comment obviously comes down to the inseparable link between culture and language. Perhaps it is not too much to say that it is the human nature or desire to explain our own and/or learn about other’s culture that has been keeping the language teaching profession alive. I remember feeling that thinking about language learning in this way as being a pretty alien concept, which shows that the education that I had received had instilled in me the idea that learning a language is like learning yet another academic subject, rather than learning it for its real purpose as a vehicle of communication.

This left me wonder if we should have been explicitly stating such potential of language more often in the traditional English as a Foreign Language classroom, especially when we are dealing with young learners, for it can be quite a powerful motivator for learning. On that note, I was able to walk out of the classroom feeling refreshed – for teaching was also learning and one could never predict exactly what was taught would be what was learnt. This is what makes teaching such a fascinating profession and unlikely as it may be, one that is unpredictably but remarkably similar to the life of a scientist.

Son, Zen and Hakuin

Son and Fate

As I was about to leave the office for the weekend, I thought it would have been a bit sad to just go home and did nothing. A live Son night at Nippori jumped right out at me, and one of my favourite, Makoto and his band, was going to perform! And it was only two days ago when I was asked if I was still interested in taking Son lesson. That had to be a sign.188185_178667738945212_435565463_n-1

Late but it seemed nothing had started yet. A glance round the room, I saw a blonde. For some reason, my head was asking me to look again. When I did, I suddenly realised that it might have been a little rude, so I looked but I didn’t really see because my control centre was telling me not to. Before my confused brain had made sense of what had happened, a familiar voice was calling my name! There they were – two long lost friends from the time when I first got to Japan. It turned out that it was her student who was performing that night.

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縁 (‘Yuen’) or fate is indeed mysterious. Tokyo isn’t small and those two live in another prefecture. I wouldn’t have even known about the event had I not checked the internet the night before. It was 縁 that brought us together.

Why are you putting me to sleep?

It was a great night except when this ‘soul’ singer came on. She started by giving a speech and it went on and on, I decided to go to the loo while she babbled on. Believe it or not, she was still at it when I came back! That was at least ten minutes of solid talking and she hadn’t even sung a note yet! Finally, she remembered that she was supposed to sing. She performed a couple of ‘souls’. Pardon me but I heard no such thing. I wonder if I was disturbed by her less-than-perfect accent. But then again, I was pretty sure that I was only picking on her accent because I wasn’t ‘distracted’ enough by her performance (or indeed, the lack of it). Frankly, she just wasn’t very good…

Why would a singer not want to prove herself/himself with their singing before embarking on a marathon speech or making dump jokes? How different is this from an English lesson taught by a ‘traditional Japanese English’ teacher? Isn’t there a convention for how certain things are supposed to be done, that is, to generate interest and create question marks? Shouldn’t we earn the right to be heard rather than simply assuming that we deserve it?

As venting is an awfully effective way of regaining balance, I’m now happy. Incidentally, I told my friend how I felt about the singer and she agreed. She also told me that the veteran, from the band I was there for, was trying to save the show by gently ‘suggesting’ that she should get started. So it seemed, I might not have been that lost in translation after all.

Hakuin

This Zen monk’s exhibition caught my eye a couple of weeks ago. I wasn’t sure if it was worth it until yesterday when a friend of mine said her tea master thought she had seen my friend’s portrait in the exhibition. I felt obliged to go.

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I was pretty ignorant about the monk so I didn’t know what to expect. There I was immediately drawn to the expressive simplicity of his lines. They were mesmerising, determined, free, playful, and how incredibly powerful.

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I seriously doubt if it is actually possible to experience the strength of his paintings by looking at reprints.

Where we want our bosses to sit

It might be hard to imagine how it should be an entry in a diary of three good things. It all came out of a lesson I did yesterday. It was a three-hour English for Business class I covered where I had met my students for the first time.

A fun Business English lesson

At the end of the lesson, one student came up to me with the following comment.

‘Thank you for the lesson, it was great fun!’

It’s the second time I had received comments like this from a business class student. Given that I have only ever taught the grand total of two such classes, both on cover, I thought it was time to reward myself a Duvel.

Our lesson was on language for showing understanding when a colleague complained and  a case study where the students had to work in groups to make and present a proposal on the redesign of an office space that were to maximise communication among staff.

Gauging the group – perhaps an adventurous bunch

It was clear during the pair activity that this group was up for some good laughs:

A ‘I didn’t think my presentation was that convincing.’

B ‘Eh….I know what you mean.’ (Ss B was intentionally being sarcastic)

 

A ‘I’m so disorganised.’

B ‘Have you seen my desk? You are looking at the office queen of mess.’

Where to put our bosses

Here is the digest of the proposals from our impromptu office design consultants:

(S = student; T = Teacher)

Group A

‘We’re going to create a single entrance to the building. So everybody could say hi to each other when they come in to work.’

T  ‘I like that idea. But I can already imagine someone saying “Look, she is late again today!”‘

 

S ‘To help reduce stress and encourage colleagues to socialise, we’re going to put up some pool and ping pong tables in the communal room. In addition, we’ll have a nap room. You know, when you’re feeling a bit sleepy after a big lunch…’

S ‘I know where I’m going to be!’

 

S ‘To improve communication between staff and the management, we’re proposing to have a desk reserved for a manager at each section of desks. It means that every week, there will be a different manager sitting there.’

S ‘Oh, I’m so going to take a day off!’

S ‘You mean you’re be taking weeks and weeks off? They are saying a different manager will be sitting there for that whole week.’

 

Group B

S ‘We’re going to have desks facing each other, with adjustable partitions. We’ll be installing smart glass, with a click of a button, you can make your partition opaque or transparent.’

T ‘I can so imagine some people who hate each other just keep pressing the button to annoy the other.’

S ‘Well, we’re professionals and we wouldn’t do things like that.’

 

S ‘Another major feature of our design is to put the management on the top floor – so they are as far away from us as possible. We’re going to put a solid wall between the management and the staff so we don’t have to look at their faces. We’re also creating a separate entrance for the management, so we don’t ever have to meet them. Our meeting will be in the form of video conferencing.’

S ‘Brilliant idea!’

T ‘Hang on, aren’t we supposed to improve communication?’

S ‘Ehhh, we didn’t think the management would count as part of the staff.’

Group 3

S ‘Currently, there are two separate entrances to the site. We’re going to close off one of these so we only need to have one security booth guarding the entrance.’

S ‘Don’t you think that’s going to create a traffic jam in the morning?’

S ‘Well, it’s all about cutting cost,’ says the accountant.

I certainly had a good laugh and it seemed the students did too. It is certainly not rather new experience for me to see these supposedly ‘stiff’ Japanese business professionals to be taking the Mickey out of each other. It just shows how important it is for the teacher to create an environment that encourages the use of appropriate humour. You could see from the above that, the teacher might have started it off but it was the students who carried it through.

My lesson of the day is make genuine laughters to be an implicit goal of every lesson that I am involved in. Having said that, I’m not saying one should make the lessons enjoyable for the sake of it. Rather, it should always firmly attaches itself to the learning aim of the lesson and be relevant to the students’ own personal experiences. That personal emotional response in turn acts as the anchor or substrate on which the lesson content can be attached. I strongly believe that what distinguishes something to be learnt or remembered depends very much on whether the emotional light bulb has flashed during our initial encounter. At the end of the day, learning is a struggle to meaning but that struggle doesn’t always have be associated with hardship or negative emotions.

It’s been a while…

お久しぶり

It’s not that nothing pleasant has been happening since my last post. The truth was that life has taken over: I started doing my Delta, moved house, got a new job, got married and am about to make yet another massive life change. On New Year’s Day, I made myself another pledge: to start practising ‘mindfulness’ every day.

So let’s get started. I feel a short list unravelling…

Cat delight

The endless delight offered by my 365 days cat calendar. A couple of days ago, it was a playful kitten resting next to something remarkably similar to my own kotatsu (Japanese heated table).

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As a person of allergies to all sorts of animals, I can dream on. I regard owning pictures of a flurry to be a perfectly acceptable replacement. Actually, something my dear cousin, a cat lover, told me the other day made me ponder. ‘Can you imagine how sad it would be when the little one die? It broke my heart’. Perhaps it’s a blessing after all.

Speaking with few words

Finally got my butt out to restart salsa and a bit of lindy hop. Braving it alone, it forced me to converse in my extremely limited Japanese. I was amazed that I had managed to have relatively ‘long’ conversation without knowing that many words. It’s interesting to be on the other side. I even managed to make a reservation on the phone despite the loud background noise on the other day. Perhaps my Japanese is not that zero after all. Hope prevails.

Being crap at Japanese

‘Why haven’t you studied Japanese if you have been here for three years?’ ‘Well, I have been busy learning how to teach, which actually is my job…’ I wonder if that would have made my case for some company Japanese lessons…. But if living somewhere long enough (i.e. more than two years) means one should not be entitled to language lessons, are we being fair?

Show yourself the light

It’s official, scientists are now saying that it is indeed possible to will oneself to happiness. With such exciting news, how can I not participate. Having a precedence of depressive period, can I really break the tendency by training my prefrontal coxtex?

Examiner or ‘examinee’?

A dear friend has just got married with a lovely bloke. The night before the wedding, a group of us managed to meet the ‘one’ in person for the first time. While we thought we were the ones doing the grilling, little did we realise that we were actually the ones under the microscope. It turned out that he had thought that all those who have received a foreign education would go home a druggy or a drop-out. Hmmmm, if it includes hayfever pills, perhaps I might be count as one.

Power of messages

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The notes and new year greetings from my girls at the elementary school have saved me from the loneliest moment of my life. A couple had even used phrases we did in the class! Not to mention the beautiful drawings that were on there.

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How does one’s heart stay open and pure for longer?‘ I shall reply, ‘By teaching elementary schools’. From now on, I would be tempted to always choose elementary schools over secondary ones, as long as our education system doesn’t try to squash their creative and original questioning and emotional expressions too soon.

A worrying sign from an recent anecdote from Hong Kong. A little girl of five was being interviewed for a place for an elementary school. Here is one of the questions she got asked:

‘What is the purpose of your hands?’

Guess how this little genius replied…

For doing my homework, of course!

I would be tempted to imagine that even the mother who was nervously sitting beside her princess would have been a bit stunned by this remark. Is this what we want for our children, a life without childhood? I wonder what the other children would have said. Or worryingly what would I have said when I was at that age. Probably, ‘Huh’…..

Day 28

Happy 1
I have never been to dim sum in Japan. We finally made it the other day. We went to this all-you-can-eat place in Yokohama’s Chinatown.

To be honest, I was a little apprehensive at first, judging by the kind of things you would get in London, it was crying out to be a disaster! But I also trusted our friend who had selected the place, someone with great intuition. As it turned out, we were pleasantly surprised. The place was pretty decent and we were able to stay there for the whole afternoon without much hassle.

It was a true dim sum experience: we stuffed our face, were in great company and had lots of interesting and, at times, animated conversations. All I wanted to eat when I got home was plain vegetables, to balance out the oil.

I felt extremely satisfied. 😁

Happy 2
I am going to be teaching in a new school, something I am really looking forward to. There are many things that I would need to learn and in a way, this kind of challenge is always going to be part of my life from now on as I continue teaching. There are always new students, new classes, new schools and new contexts. When I started teaching, I really had not thought about what it meant to be in this career.

Sadly, many experienced teachers are moving on. On Saturday though, I felt particularly inspired by one of them when we started talking about teaching.

You need to have passion. I have been teaching for over 20 years and I still enjoy doing it, like never before.

I sincerely hope that it will be what I would say in 20 years. What I particularly like was his teaching belief.

It is all about people. What I do is to create the right environment and learning will take care of itself. I facilitate.’

Very similar to what Einstein said and exactly the kind of teacher I aspire to become. But the challenging part for me is to build and develop the necessary skills, techniques and language awareness so I can deploy them like a magician who has mastered her wand.

Doing the Delta, I feel immensely challenged. The kind of things I am learning and the way the information is given are totally out of my discipline. As someone not particularly passionate about languages and quite straightforwardly scientifically minded, I feel that I really have to stretch myself to the limit to overcome this. This challenge is daunting but at the same time, quite motivating, if only I could keep on top of my nerve. What I have on my side is my interest in people.

Happy 3
I am almost on holiday now but there are a few lessons to go. I realise that recently I have been spending too much time worrying about everything that I haven’t been looking after myself that much. I also haven’t been doing things that I enjoy. This is certainly not good. Yesterday I was going to study but I decided to take the chance to go dancing. It was great. I haven’t been dancing for so long that I really thought I had forgotten everything. Luckily, even though I was rusty, I could still do something. My new term resolution would be to go to at least a lesson regularly. It’s good to feel inspired.